Sunday, October 12, 2014

A Tribute to our Iron Lady

She died on October 10th nearly 15 years ago. An Iron Lady to the last. There are some politicians who warrant only footnotes. They fade away. Their legacies pass into infamy. Not so this lady. These are some reflections. Subjective as they are, I cannot modify them.

There are people who are vilified beyond reason. They have their politics. Unpalatable to many. It is of course a sign of bankruptcy wherever and whenever political affiliation becomes synonymous with rabid, venomous diatribes aimed against those not sharing it. Politicians are no exception. They have their worshippers. Their adulators. They also have their opposers. Haters. That's a given thing. All too often, however, the tide of power and ideology that all too often moves against them ensures infamy, not just for them personally but for their legacy too. I have little sympathy for politicians. But that this should mean unabated, unconditional damnation of their legacy, particularly when they served their country and people, and especially so when those who took over the mantle of power committed atrocity after atrocity which dwarf into insignificance their predecessor's abuses, is ridiculous.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike was not cut out for politics. Her family had been part of the Radala aristocracy, though quite different to most of that social cross-section who allied themselves completely with the White Man. As Kumari Jayawardena rightly observes in her book, nonetheless, they were all "Nobodies" who had become or were becoming "Somebodies". But Sirimavo Bandaranaike's family, the Ratwattes, were staunch Sinhala Buddhists. It was only natural that she herself would grow up with "identity" figuring in her political ideals.

Politics is not cricket. It is not "gentlemanly". There are backhanded deals, "colour changes", and (most of all) rhetoric involved. Big-time. Sirimavo was not "clean" of these. Though she had not been born for politics, she adapted. Quickly. At a time when our country bore the insignia of colonialism and we were seeking identities of our own to unshackle ourselves of it, her husband joined politics and national aspiration. That was the time of "Badung Booruwa" and in-name-only "Non-Alignment". That was a time of culture vilification and Colombo-centric "Members Only" snooty politics. Notwithstanding the lesser things he did, S. W. R. D. proved himself. It was up-to his wife, the "Weeping Widow" as both supporter and adversary dubbed her, to continue where he had left.

The rest is of course history. Recounting them here would be quite unnecessary.

A brief run through would be in order, though. Firstly, from the economic front, Sirimavo tried what India had done. She went for "self-sufficiency". It didn't work, but not for the reasons most people will have you believe today. For those who thought the failure to have been largely due to our "inability" to be self-sufficient, there were the milk industry and the cooperatives to point to the contrary. The "inability" as such pointed not towards self-sufficiency (or rather the lack thereof), but rather to the opposition she faced. Coalition politics and grand alliances had to be formed. Still the opposers remained. Still the reactionaries fought. That even half of her economic reforms succeeded is testament to her resolve.

Then there's the ideological front. S. W. R. D. lit a fire back in 1956. That fire erupted into riots two years later. Sirimavo, though, was different. For the first time in Sri Lankan history, left-wing politics had its say here. While her husband had been proposing a hazy and largely idealistic "Third Way" between communism and capitalism, Sirimavo furthered the idea of nonalignment and socialism in a way no other politician since her time ever could. There are some who claim that she "ruined" the Left. They believe she crippled it by conjoining her identity- and nationalist-based politics ("bourgeois" and hence anathema to the diehard Trotskyite) with a compromised version of what the Left had stood for. But compromise had to be made. What would have happened otherwise is a matter for conjecture and hence shouldn't be guessed at here.

Sirimavo's politics, however, was flawed. Her husband had put "family" out of government. She did the opposite. But I don't find a precedent set here. For those who think that she initiated the family-dynastic trend in Sri Lankan politics, a perusal of post-independence politics and of course the blood-links between the leaders who preceded her would be in order. Not that this absolves her. She included close kinship and family patronage as qualifiers to her political circles. This dented her popularity. If there was one chief reason (apart from the 1972 Land Reforms Act and the attendant nationalisation-thrust) that explained "1977", it was this. Lawyers, alarmed and revolted by the dictatorial powers conferred on her nephew Felix Dias, opposed her. Lawyers can make and break regimes. That is how 1977 played out. And that is how we lost.

But there are things she did. 1972, for instance. It is a sad thing to reflect on, but the euphoria of that day when we overturned the shackles of colonialism and celebrated our collective identity is no more. We do not celebrate it. What Sirimavo did was to bequeath to us the delayed project her husband had promised back in 1956. It took 15 years. That's politics. Promises are made, but adversaries will always grind axes. But she gave it to us, belated though it was. She restored to us the dignity we had tried to get back since 1505. 450+ years is a long time. That's all the more reason to fret over how we've forgotten what she did. The truth is, May 22 was her biggest achievement. We've footnoted it. Forgotten it. Thrown it aside.

Above everything else, though, she guided us through a volatile time. The Cold War. That was a time of conspiracy, reaction and counter-reaction. That was a "you're with us or against us" period. A bipolar world. Small nations, and the underdeveloped and developing world in general, were at crossroads. Humbled and humiliated by imperialism, they wanted a Third Path. That was what four people laid the foundation under one day in 1961. That was what Gamal Abdel Nasser, Marshall Tito, and Jawarhalal Nehru had come to aspire for a long time back. That was also what the three of them found common ground with, in Sri Lanka and in the mother-widow who lead it. The Non-Aligned Movement had been a fond project of her husband. When she nationalised the multinationals here, the Hickenlooper Amendment, the chief string in Western foreign aid "politics", was applied, and we lost American aid. Her husband's project was well on its way to fruition. We lost some friendships. But gained others.

Sri Lanka's geopolitics had always been based on "Third Way" nonalignment. To have chosen one part of the world over another would have been politically unrealistic. If there's one word Sri Lanka's position in this world can be summed up with, "strategic" would be it. Always. Whether antagonising Western friendship was pragmatic in this sense is something those qualified can pore over. But one thing interests me here: not until Sirimavo's regime did we see post-independent Sri Lanka try out nonalignment.

Pragmatism was and indeed should be the sine qua non of our foreign policy. D. S. Senanayake and his son Dudley laid the foundation for it. John Kotelawala perverted it (one reason for S. W. R. D.'s victory in 1956). Sirimavo resurrected it. This isn't all, of course, for even after J. R.'s attempt at going back on her nonalignment polity (a failure given how his counting on Western support for erasing the LTTE factor during his presidency proved fruitless), it continued to be the foundation on which our foreign policy evolved. It is to her testament that, notwithstanding how much we differed from her economic-ideological program, nonalignment remains virtually un-erasable by anything or anybody today.

She had her critics, of course. S. W. R. D.'s main ideological foe had been Tamil communal politics. When Sirimavo wrested control from the Catholic Church with her Schools Takeover Act, she ensured the 1962 coup and antagonised reactionary minority groups (a "microscopic minority" as L. H. Mettananda once observed) who had till then been in control and in power. When she broke the Press (courtesy of N. M. Perera) in 1973 and nationalised it, she signed her own "death warrant" to come four years later.

Her economic program was itself in need of reform. Family politics just added the fuel. Things were bound to crack up. And they did. She lost citizenship courtesy a constitution that continues to concentrate power in incumbent and castrate opposition. When she returned to power in 1994 as partner to her own daughter, she had lost that lustre which had inflamed many in my parents' and grandparents' generation to admire and follow the era she led.

All this is frill, of course. Past and long-gone. I've often wondered how Sirimavo Bandaranaike and her legacy can best be remembered. There were ups and downs. She strung a cobweb around our country that shielded it from outside intrusion. As flawed as her program was (the blame as always will belong to those in her cabinet who tried to throw the baby with the bathwater with Leftist policies), her emphasis on nonalignment cannot be stressed enough.

We were a nation in need of identity back then. Badly. The Sinhalese and the Tamil languages needed due recognition. Some argue that English should have stood alongside them. I agree. Moved by on-the-moment expediency and demagogue-politics, both husband and wife enacted policies that were too hasty and too soon. Perhaps this was their biggest flaw, upon which sits every other flaw that has since been dwarfed by what her successors, through blood and "bheeshana", and including her own daughter, indulged in.

There were some politicians who weren't ready. They're still among us, leading those who oppose the man in power. Sirimavo was one of them. She was a "made" politician. There was the family factor, true. Hers wasn't a rags-to-riches political story. But she came and she left. What she left behind, we continue to reap. There is however one word that can aptly bind up her legacy. It's a 12-letter word called "nonalignment". For that, I think and I believe, we should be grateful.

The lady had grit. "The only man in her cabinet," someone once claimed of her. Truly the Iron Lady we can all be proud of.